The grayness of the origin of life

Hillary H. Smith, Andrew S. Hyde, Danielle N. Simkus, Eric Libby, Sarah E. Maurer, Heather V. Graham, Christopher P. Kempes, Barbara Sherwood Lollar, Luoth Chou, Andrew D. Ellington, G. Matthew Fricke, Peter R. Girguis, Natalie M. Grefenstette, Chad I. Pozarycki, Christopher H. House, Sarah Stewart Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


In the search for life beyond Earth, distinguishing the living from the non-living is paramount. However, this distinction is often elusive, as the origin of life is likely a stepwise evolutionary process, not a singular event. Regardless of the favored origin of life model, an inherent “grayness” blurs the theorized threshold defining life. Here, we explore the ambiguities between the biotic and the abiotic at the origin of life. The role of grayness extends into later transitions as well. By recognizing the limitations posed by grayness, life detection researchers will be better able to develop methods sensitive to prebiotic chemical systems and life with alternative biochemistries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number498
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Palaeontology


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